Fox News host Sean Hannity on Monday night claimed that a column in the New York Times libeled him. A piece by “Big City” columnist Ginia Bellafante, argued Hannity, twisted his words in pursuit of a bogus story. “That is slander. That is libel,” said Hannity.

To libel someone is to publish false things that damage that person’s reputation. In the case of Hannity, the question is: What reputation is left to damage?

Bellafante’s column in Sunday’s New York Times centered on Joe Joyce, the garrulous 74-year-old owner of Brooklyn bar JJ Bubbles. After a cruise to Spain with his wife, Joyce returned to the United States and died of covid-19 on April 9. The media angle relates to the pivotal role of Fox News in coronavirus coverage. Before setting off on his trip, the healthy Joyce didn’t see much to fear in the rising health-care crisis. “He watched Fox, and believed it was under control,’’ Joyce’s daughter told Bellafante.

The column offered some material from the March 9 edition of “Hannity,” as well as some additional reporting:

Early in March Sean Hannity went on air proclaiming that he didn’t like the way that the American people were getting scared “unnecessarily.’’ He saw it all, he said, “as like, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”
Eventually, Fox changed course and took the virus more seriously, but the Joyces were long gone by then. A spokeswoman for Fox News said that Mr. Hannity made statements taking the spread of coronavirus seriously early on, and that his comment about the public being scared by the coverage happened after the Joyces had left on their cruise.

None of that pleased the Fox News host. “Times columnist — well, this woman’s name is Ginia Bellafante — pretty much all but accused yours truly of murder,” said Hannity on Monday. “In order to smear yours truly, they literally — this woman exploited a man’s tragic death. She willingly, maliciously, purposefully took something I said completely out of context and as proven by all my past statements that the New York Times was very well aware of."

Bolding added to terminology common in defamation suits. Is Hannity working on one of these? A source close to Hannity reports that he’s “weighing his options.”

In propagating its alleged libel, charges Hannity, the New York Times mangled the timeline of the virus and the Joyces’ trip. “The remarks that she used — yes, they were from March the 9th, again, taken out of context. It was also eight days after Mr. Joyce embarked on his cruise.”

Correct: Bellafante reported that Joyce and his wife set sail for Spain on March 1. How could a Hannity statement from March 9 have influenced the decision of a couple to take a cruise on March 1? That’s poor journalism.

But had the Times searched earlier in the “Hannity” archive, they would have found some interesting material. On Feb. 26, for example, Hannity blasted Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and his Democratic colleagues for “trying to use the coronavirus to bludgeon President Trump, not telling the truth as usual, shameless politicizing of health and the well-being of Americans.” And then there’s this rant issued from the start of the Feb. 27 show:

Tonight, I can report the sky is absolutely falling. We're all doomed. The end is near. The apocalypse is imminent and you're going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours and it's all President Trump's fault.
Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think. They’re now sadly politicizing and actually weaponizing an infectious disease, in what is basically just the latest effort to bludgeon President Trump.

On that same show — as well as others — Hannity began speaking out of both sides of his very active mouth. Shortly after mocking coronavirus, the host admitted, “Make no mistake. Coronavirus, it is dangerous. Those infected are contagious before they show symptoms during incubation period. They don’t know they have the disease.” At other points along the timeline, Hannity called it a “serious matter,” a “serious disease” and so on. But then his propagandistic self needed its say. As late as March 10, for example, Hannity drew in the right-wing commentator’s favorite polemical red herring — murderous Chicago! “Twenty six people were shot in Chicago alone over the weekend. You notice there’s no widespread hysteria about violence in Chicago,” said the host.

In a recent court filing, Fox News sought dismissal of a meritless suit filed by a Washington state nonprofit over the network’s coronavirus coverage. In an appendix to the filing, the network provided a spreadsheet of on-air statements highlighting the peril of coronavirus. It includes comments on six episodes of the prime time program of Tucker Carlson — who sounded the alarm early on coronavirus — and one episode of “Hannity,” from March 12: “Now, let’s start with facts, not fear. Make no mistake, the coronavirus, every virus … we’ve been telling you, you must take it seriously. It has been and it is being taken seriously,” said Hannity.

As part of his effort to defend his coverage, Hannity pointed to a Feb. 27 tweet from Bellafante herself:

Hmmm.

Here’s the difference: With her roughly 8,000 Twitter followers, Bellafante doesn’t move public opinion on coronavirus quite the way that the No. 1 cable-news network does. A survey from the Pew Research Center, taken March 10 to March 16, found that “roughly eight-in-ten (79%) of those whose main source is Fox News say the media slightly or greatly exaggerated the risk of the pandemic, with only 15% saying they got the risks about right.” For those whose main source is CNN, 54 percent claimed slight or great exaggeration, vs. 35 percent for MSNBC.

It’s unclear if those Fox News viewers gathered that impression from Hannity, some other Fox News host or some of the other news sources that feed off Fox News. But what is clear is that Hannity needs an ace lawyer to convince a judge and jury that the New York Times has injured his glorious reputation in the news business. After the Trump sycophancy, the Seth Rich conspiracy theory and the nonsense about Hillary Clinton’s health, among other shameful episodes, what’s left to injure?

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